The Virgin Ghost
(The Comparative Difficulties of a Newly Formed Ectoplasm in a Modern World)
Ever wanted to write a ghost story? Most are usually terrifying for the living and often set in old buildings in bygone times. What if our chief protagonist was set in a modern world with modern challenges. How does a ghost use an iPhone—if there is now skin to set off the screen choices? I have almost finished this one, but I have been interrupted by my time travel novels (volumes 20 & 21.) I will return to this soon as I have the entire novel mapped out and the final chapter written (as I like to do!)
14-year-old Bridget is having problems with her parents, Rex and Iris; they no longer get along. Her mum is ambitious and her dad has gone to sleep.
Iris has a plan to make their lives more exciting; a Japanese inspired Lysergic Acid Diethylamide Saké party that should lead to a promotion.
No one mentioned the swinger aspect.
No one considered the consequences.
Rex reached out to his daughter and took hold of her hand. She was shaking violently. A myriad of calming phrases flashed across his mind, yet not one seemed perfect for this situation. He had no experience with this and he liked to speak from experience. For once, he had no idea where to draw that strength from… this particular moment, like so many others recently, eluded him.
Rex withdrew his hand. He was withdrawing from Bridget as he had from Iris, but this was different. She looked pale and frightened. She was looking at Rex’s hand as he did now… it was covered in blood.
Another Great Divide
Rex remembered looking up at Bridget…
“Are you alright, Bridg… are you?”
Bridget was talking, he could see her lips moving, but he couldn’t hear a word. All he could hear was the sound of shredding metal. Still her lips moved and as the ringing in his ears faded, he could eventually make out the words that left her lips. She was panicked, frightened… and although he could now hear her, he could not understand a single word she was saying…
The demons in Rex’s brain began toying with him now, twisting every thought and image, factual and fantasy…
How did you imagine it would be, Rex?
Any different from the day before?
Do the lines below your eyes diminish with wear or did you think the reflection in your LCD screen might soften the blow of time?
Not that you’re old… isn’t 40 the new 30? Then again, if you’d been born a few hundred years ago, you would be an old man. Perhaps you’d be a seer or even a sage, or does all this reflection mean you are old after all?
Perhaps that’s why the body creaks and groans so. Maybe we weren’t meant to survive past such a seemingly inconsequential age and that the younger generation are right; this time is meant for them… but if this is their time, why are there so many more people floating around at your age or older... and what have you done to your daughter Bridget?
Rex reached out to his daughter and took hold of her hand. She was shaking violently. A myriad of calming phrases flashed across his mind, yet not one seemed perfect for this situation. He had no experience with this and he liked to speak from experience. For once, he had no idea where to draw that strength from… the moment eluded him.
Rex withdrew his hand. He was withdrawing from Bridget, as he had from Iris, but this was different. His daughter looked pale and frightened. She was looking at Rex’s hand as he did now… it was covered in blood.
Rex stretched the skin below his eyes down with his forefinger and thumb. He had never felt so tired, yet he enjoyed his job. It was just… everything else. He didn’t even remember driving to work this morning, yet here he was on his ergonomically comfortable chair with its five separate levers. He sat in a room that was glass on all sides; the fish bowl. Rex didn’t mind the term. He had nothing to hide and he enjoyed the light and the space. The company fileservers hummed away behind him and his desk spread out before of him; welcoming him with its various colour-coded post-it notes and varying piles of notes alluding to projects that he was currently involved in.
Between Rex and the glass of his fish bowl was his trusty widescreen LCD monitor, which was flashing methodically through the highlights of his most recent family trip. He could have been totally anal and edited these thoroughly. Instead, he mixed photos taken by all members of the family regardless of merit… a blur here, a blue sky there, a random head in the lens or even odd Asian families with their mother leering over them in some gothic horror pose!
How did he get to work this morning and why did he not ache if he felt so bloody tired?
Rex tapped his mouse gently, as usual… nothing… he knocked it more firmly with a touch of frustration and the LCD screen before him came to life. He mused briefly at the convenience and the frustration computers caused people in a modern world. It had become common for users to become frustrated with their computer systems, despite the fact that they were so much faster than they were a decade ago… or even five years ago. Everything was just so instant now and everybody wanted their information now and Rex was no exception despite being an infinitely patient man.
The images of Rex’s recent family trip evaporated and he was faced with a login prompt. Security was such a bitch sometimes, but then he didn’t remember logging in this morning. Rex mused again, this time about how the mundane tasks of a usual day blurred into nothingness so casually. He placed his hands strategically across the keyboard and pressed CTRL-ALT-DEL simultaneously. The keys did not respond. Fabulous, another bloody broken keyboard. That was two in a week! It was no surprise to Rex that they were so cheap now; like his Dad always said… “You get what you pay for, mate.”
The keyboard failed to respond even after Rex wiggled its USB cable in the slot at the rear of his PC. Rex slid into memory mode; did he have a spare keyboard that wasn’t a PS/2?
Rex’s musings were interrupted by voices that appeared immaculately behind him. He was often surprised by visitors to his office as he had so few and given that his office was at the rear of the building there was little in the way of trade traffic. This suited Rex perfectly as he did like to immerse himself in a problem and solve it thoroughly.
Leaning back on his chair, just as he was advised not to do by the latest OH&S memo, Rex spied two co-workers at the server rack that was slightly behind him and to his right. It was Leslie and Matt. They were fiddling with the tape drive. Had he forgotten to do that this morning as well? Was he really that wasted? If only he had some addictive excuse for his slackness.
“Are we following the correct procedure?”
“Just follow Rex’s notes on the door, can’t go wrong. Everything’s typed out step by step, Leslie.”
“Do you think it’s cold in here this morning, Matt?”
“Me and Rex always said our offices suffered to keep you girls warm. I guess it’s just another one of those days back here.”
“Maybe, but I feel a shiver.”
Leslie glanced in Rex’s direction briefly. It was an odd little look, as if she was looking right through him, and beyond it she ignored him, as did young Matt. God, he was in the dog house at work as well as at home. Could this day get any worse!
Rex pretended not to care. This was just work after all and there were so many things one could do in life… if only he took his own advice.
He flicked his mouse again, but as the screen flickered back to life Rex heard a gasp to his right and Leslie scurried out of the room. Rex watched her flit past, beyond his computer screen, on the far side of his fish bowl. The servers continued to hum rhythmically in the background as they always had. He didn’t even notice them anymore and he didn’t notice young Matt as he backed out of the room. Rex didn’t spy the look of trepidation on the young man’s face. Perhaps he should have, but then there were lots of things one should do in life and yet so few we actually did.
The remainder of the day passed by without incident, yet Rex suspected that his co-workers were discussing him. More than once he had experienced that odd chill, but no-one was obviously walking over his grave, and no-one actually approached him. They stood in their cozy little groups for their water-cooler chats, occasionally glancing in his direction, without engaging him. This was a privilege Rex had acquired with his residence in the fish-bowl-like office. He found that he could see everything that went on in the main office beyond; he just wasn’t privy to the actual dialogue.
He had often contemplated learning to lip read. However, besides being rude, he couldn’t think of anything else for which he might use such a devious skill. Rex could be extremely frugal with his time. If a task was deemed to be a waste, he avoided it. A task had to have a genuine purpose, an obvious outcome. That was why he never tweeted; he could see no practical use for it. If someone wanted to know why he was scratching his arse, they could come into his office and ask him personally. Even if they did, he wasn’t sure he would tell them, so why would he advertise it to a hostile Internet.
There was a world beyond Rex’s fish bowl, his own private universe, but he rarely saw it or immersed himself in it. He was just so focused on the here and now – bringing in the bacon as they said, being the provider for his family… and as he thought about that, probably for the first time, he realized why he had drifted away from his wife and from the most treasured person in his life… his teenage daughter. Was this regret or just realization? Rex needed to take stock and re-evaluate his life… there was only so much time and the time he had seemed to wear him down so…
Rex didn’t know what sleep felt like anymore. He was sure he wasn’t getting enough, but he wasn’t sure he was getting any at all. Everything seemed to pass him by in a radiant blur; there was light, there just wasn’t any definition.
Every new day seemed to be the same as every other day and here he was sitting at his desk again with no memory of driving here or even mounting the flight of steps up to the main office.
Try as he may Rex could not focus. He could not retrace his steps, so he re-focussed on his desk and the day ahead. There was always work; that was normal. That was something he did every day without fail, without a sickie and rarely with a holiday to disturb its monotonous drone.
The desk before him was welcoming; ordered as it was. There was always a pile for this job to be done and another for that. Occasionally he would even have a pile for family things, but they had become rarer in recent years and grown thinner. That should have been the thing that bothered him at this particular moment, yet it wasn’t. There was something else, some other greater divide, something far more sinister.
Somebody had been re-arranging his desk. The piles of notes here were no longer organized and obvious… some were even missing!
OK, so he was that anal… but what gave anyone the right!
Rex peered out over his computer screen; out through his fish bowl existence. He had that vague feeling that his co-workers were staring in at him again. Whispering vagaries he couldn’t comprehend. The voices pierced his eardrums like minute white-hot filaments, delivered by an expert Chinese spy from an ancient Dynasty. Rex held his hands over his ears, but the coldness of his own flesh failed to form a sufficient barrier. His office could be so cold; damn this useless air conditioning, how hard was it to warm such a small office anyway?
The whispers kept slicing between his fingers like Wolverine on a mission to learn the unerring truth of his own existence.
“Damn the cheek…”
“And for all the pay he gets!”
“I work twice as many hours and he gets to sit in there and dream!”
The anger in Rex welled and as the dam burst inside of him he swept his hands across the desk before him. The neat little piles of notes flew into the air, but the fury behind their flight dissipated quickly, settling into a light rustle as they floated harmlessly back down to the desk. Some even landed in their original position, while others landed in their original order. The gently settling notes deflated Rex’s anger which was not a difficult thing to do. He was not an angry man. In fact, he bordered on imitating a docile puppy, yet the past few days had been inordinately frustrating and it was Valentine’s Day tomorrow…
The day blurred again and Rex soon found himself out on the street amidst the hustle and bustle of lunchtime shoppers. It was a warm summer’s day, 30 degrees in the shade, yet Rex walked quickly, almost breathlessly amongst the throng. He wasn’t a philanderer, but he always noticed the young women as well as the older more alluring ones. He spied out all of the latest fashions; the short skirts, the low tops and the particularly brief shorts that had sold like hot cakes this season. There was no doubt that some of the women wearing these, generally sexy little numbers, should have avoided them like the plague, but then rats are so cute with their beady little eyes and twitchy noses. Rex knew that he wasn’t one to talk, he was no oil painting and his girth was built more for mirth these days!
Dandenong Plaza was like any other modern shopping complex anywhere in the world; filled with well-lit centralized halls that created a labyrinth only town planners could be proud of. It was filled with the same tenants found in every other such complex and in the same nonsensical order. Why was that pet shop beside the doughnut shop? Were the doughnut holes created by ramming them over some poor dachshund’s nose?
Rex shook his head in dismay and scanned the mall for an information booth. He was pleasantly surprised to find an information screen instead; pleasantly surprised because it was not human and it was a touch screen. He presented his forefinger to the screen and navigated his way through its instructions, easily discovering his target which appeared on the accompanying map in an appropriately inappropriate location. Not surprisingly, Rex had already passed it, unnoticed, as the store was tucked in amongst a number of fresh produce stores!
Retracing one’s steps through a crowded shopping centre at lunch time could be a chore, but not today. Rex was on a mission. He glided through the crowd, seemingly unnoticed. It must have been the heat. It always kept people at arm’s length… or so he told himself. Small oddities always seemed to stay that way when they became beneficial to one’s day.
The store of his desire matched the week of the year in which it sat in his life. Glittering under the artificial lights of the shopping centre, the store beckoned to his wallet. Rex paused for a moment and perused the shop’s windows, but it wasn’t a miserly pause. He was actually wondering if it wasn’t time to include Bridget in his annual pilgrimage to a jeweller’s store. He was sure that his wife Iris wouldn’t mind. Besides, she needn’t know… he didn’t know everything about her life and life seemed to be better that way. It kept the mystery alive. Rex always said that he married Iris because life would always be interesting with her around.
Life hadn’t always been interesting, but Iris had always made it more so.
Rex stepped into the store, quite deliberately. He had heard about Thomas Sabo jewellery which was made for teenage girls and not as expensive as the Pandora he was planning to buy his wife. This was how he should introduce Bridget to Valentine’s Day. After all, she was only 14.
The jewellery store was as bust as he had expected for this week of the year. It was advertising the day appropriately, with a smattering of cupids, a dash of glitter and an abundance of hearts. There were three shop assistants in attendance; unfortunately each was attending a customer. Rex ghosted just beyond their conversations, peering discreetly over their shoulders to see what new glitter was on offer this year.
The first customer that Rex came across was looking at watches, so he breezed onto the next. It was a man who was not too dissimilar to himself. He was greying slightly, yet less hirsute where it counted, with skin that aged him to about 50 given the leathery tan and the crow’s feet that parenthesized his piercing blue eyes. Rex peered over the man’s shoulder; Pandora, excellent! The man gave a shiver and his head swivelled with annoyance towards him. It was only then that Rex realised he had stepped in too close. He must have brushed the man’s jacket. He apologized and stepped back quickly. The man ignored him, as did the sales woman.
Rex moved on again.
There were two other customers in the store now and Rex’s lunch hour was rapidly diminishing… as were the newly designed Pandora bracelet charms made especially for Valentine’s Day. He continued to stalk the counters waiting for the next available assistant. He knew what he wanted now and his credit card was burning a hole in his back pocket.
Rex often wondered what it would be like to have a dominant personality; to be able to walk into a room and assume control, regardless of who else was in that room. He had never really felt the need before now or experienced the luxury, and as his charisma failed him again, two of the shop assistants looked right through him and invited the attention of their two newest potential customers.
Rex didn’t stand a chance.
It was not the first time this had happened to him. If only he had more time. That was how he consoled himself, yet he departed the shop with the flap of an ill wind. Only then did the shop assistants pause in retrospect and glance in his direction. One raised her eyebrow slightly, whilst the other gave a more confused shrug of her shoulders; the customers both shivered involuntarily.
Sure it was Valentine’s Day and Rex knew that he wasn’t the world’s most likely looking big spender, but that was no excuse for the shop assistants looking right through him. The anger in him built as he strode out manfully through the shopping centre. Brilliant lines of derision flashed across his scowl; he never could successfully attack an argument without forethought. He even planned his fights with Iris; she was a much better improviser in a stressful moment than he was.
Rex was surprised that he didn’t cannon into one or two of the many lunchtime shoppers as he did not detour from his intended route one millimetre. He normally ducked and weaved politely; even if he had the right of way… it was always so much easier, but not today. He fared well in his mood, blinded by the passion of his own typical failure… blinded to the look on the faces of the shoppers around him. Blinded to the horror, the disbelief…
Perhaps courtesy was still expected after all… perhaps it was alive and well in the average shopper… perhaps we all shiver in the anticipation of its return…
“I’m not sure what to do with Bridget. It’s just not the same around here anymore… not since… I can’t bear to touch her room… I can’t even bare to go inside… I’d forgotten how hard it was to lose someone…”
A solitary tear streaked down Iris’ face and onto the telephone’s mouthpiece. It was such a clunky old phone; a refurbished Bakelite gem, circa 1930. It matched the age and the décor of the house, yet despite its age and its scars, Iris quickly wiped the tear off the mouthpiece with her mottled tissue. She thought that she had been carrying the same one scrunched in her fist for days; she hadn’t noticed the empty box in the laundry cupboard.
Bridget listened to the conversation from her room, which was off the hallway, from where her mother sat. The hall was one of those ingenious ideas developed in another age. It ran the entire length of the house; north to south… an open door at either end capturing the breeze as it fluctuated from fresh southerly to warm northerly. Unlike modern houses, which were poured in concrete to emulate a mouse maze, to challenge the breeze and trap it, this house was designed to take full advantage of the changes in weather.
The lathe and plaster walls further insulated the 90-year-old house and muffled the tears that flowed so freely here of late, but Bridget knew. She could sense the despair within these walls, while creating torrents of her own from within. She hadn’t left her room in days. She was terrified of the outside world and all the dangers it presented. She was far more comfortable with her own grief, despite its harrowing nature and its isolation. The ghost that she had become may as well have been a pile of ashes. This was something that she viewed as inevitable and always too soon in most people’s eyes, but then who wanted to lay prostrate in a grave for a millennia slowly being picked at by subterranean creatures whose eyes were blinded by the sun.
Bridget shivered a little at the thought. She had felt so cold of late and she daren’t look in the mirror. She had no physical idea what state she was in, yet she could guess. The handsome hand-carved cheval mirror in the corner had not reflected her image for days. It had almost forgotten the image of a statuesque 14-year-old young woman whose figure had blossomed each day of the past year. Whose eyes had been wide and blue in anticipation of each new experience, framed as they were in a disarming, if slightly innocent smile, and locks of flaxen hair that fell in waves to her shoulders when she didn’t have it tied back. She had just begun to enjoy her smile again. Gone were the braces that had dogged her for two years, replaced by the near imperceptible clear retainer she now tried to avoid during daylight hours.
Bridget ran her fingers lightly across the intricate grooves of her cheval mirror. It was such a lovely antique, discovered by chance under a sheet in a makeshift store in the central Victorian gold mine town of Maldon. The wood, although chipped in places, danced with the images of spritely fairies, whose faded torsos belied the brightly enchanting figures of yesteryear. These were woven with wooden vines, with burgeoning tentacles that leached out across the reflective surface of the mirror, before winding back on themselves and morphing into grotesque yet friendly gargoyle heads. Bridget had a name for each of these, but she kept those to herself and whispered slyly to them beyond her bedtime, when the lightning from summer storms illuminated their faces.
The mirror itself was mottled here and there, but it still reflected its images well if they were worthy and for those not quite so, the mirror gave them a lovely hazy mirage. Bridget was certainly worthy enough for the mirror, although she declined to brighten its depths with her reflection today. She had refused to display her charms for days now and her mother was beside herself with the grief of it.
Bridget could hear the loss in her mother’s voice as she droned on outside. Was it possible that technology brought out the worst in us? It was so impersonal compared to a hug and that was something a friendly tweet or a poke could never replace. It was such an impersonal world nowadays; one used an email or a plastic receiver as a sounding board, not the warm arms of another or the close comfort of their welling eyes.
Bridget’s eyes began to well, yet she shed no tears. She was beyond that, and like her father before her, the loss and the anger slowly built up inside her. The tsunami beyond her green eyes would be devastating in its fury, but she wasn’t ready to part with it just yet.
The room around reeked with the smell of musty clothes. Her wicker laundry basket overflowed with the remnants of a fortnight of neglect. It reminded her of an experiment her dad performed for her the year before. He had taken an almost empty coffee mug out of the sink and hidden it in the back of the cupboard. There it festered and grew into an altogether foreign entity that eventually spawned up over the lip of the mug and out amongst the crockery beyond – that was until her mother discovered it to her infinite horror – the creature from beyond the coffee mug!
This was more like the creature from beyond the wicker basket, with its lingering body odours and stale dregs of over-sprayed deodorizers and cheap teenage perfumes. It was probably as over-powering as walking through the main entrance of any department store, where one was ambushed by all the latest fragrances all at once, before being attacked by zealous sales assistants, eager to turn your inner wrist into a litmus paper of aggressively opposing odours. Her father, Rex, hated those store entrances, with almost as much passion as he taunted Bridget and Iris through their wares on the occasional special occasion.
Bridget wondered if her room would always be like this; a memorial to a life no longer attainable. Was this all that remained after such a tragedy? Faded ornaments, dusty snow globes, dog-eared photos whose colours faded in synch with the price of the paper they were printed on, and footy heroes who were often forgotten in a year due to injury, poor form or defection to a rival club. Bridget blushed a little as her eyes drifted across her Daisy Thomas; all that blonde hair and those cute little footy shorts. Her dad barracked for a rival club, whose fortunes had been at a low ebb for years, so he dutifully took her to each and every local Magpie game just as a father should. Besides, he just like to see a good game of football regardless of who played, so why not take his daughter; he had no son with which to enjoy the games.
Bridget’s mother, Iris, never joined them. This was strictly a father-daughter thing, but as in life, all good things must come to an end. The thought of those frozen winter evenings in the stands of the ‘G’ with her dad brought her emotions to the surface again.
Her roomed seemed cold now, ancient and decrepit; only memories lived here now.
Bridget didn’t want to be only a memory just yet. She hadn’t done enough worthy things to sustain a memory.
She hugged herself as she shivered uncontrollably, and falling to her knees, she let out an unholy scream that echoed through the old house and the room faded around her…
Iris wiped the mouth piece of the antique telephone on her jeans. Her mottled tissue had proven less than useless. She inspected it for a few seconds before she returned the phone to her ear. It had been the most difficult week of her life and she knew despite the passage of time, of which everyone kept reminding her, for her this week would never really end. She knew that it would linger and fester until it finally ate away at all that she was, despite the extraordinarily brave face she had worn up until now.
“Are you alright, dear?”
Iris could hear the slight crackle in her mother’s voice, yet it was the clearest of connections. She had not heard her mother break like that for nearly 15 years. Had it really been 15 years? Had she been without her father for that long? Had it really been that long since the family had lost anyone?
“I’ll be OK, mum. Just like everyone keeps telling me… it takes time.”
“It takes a long time, Iris. I don’t think we ever get over such a loss, we just find a way to live with the hole in our life. Just… just fill it with fond memories, my dear. Don’t think about the end, the end is always sad, think about all those wonderful moments. All those photos you have on the wall. You would never have done any of those things on your own… and it’s more than I ever did, more than I will ever do now…”
Iris drifted for a moment.
She had done that a lot in the past few days, but not quite like this. Her mother had distracted her. Iris was casting her teary eyes over the walls of the hallway. Rex had been so diligent in here and in the lounge room. He worked so hard and these moments were so few, yet here they were in bright memorable colours. The three of them in front of the pyramids in Egypt, Rex and Bridget on a camel and Iris on a horse… she hated camels, ugly smelly spitty things. Then there was Rex and Bridget ascending the passage inside the Red Pyramid, Iris had freaked a little as it was far too claustrophobic for her liking, but she did manage to snap them on the way out. Iris drifted on to the photo Bridget had taken of Rex in his 2006 Vertigo tour t-shirt, in front of the Irish castle from the Unforgettable Fire L.P. Then there was Stonehenge and all three of them in front of the Eiffel Tower taken by a lovely Italian couple. She remembered Rex returning the favour. Finally, there was Rex and Bridget shaking hands over an over-sized chess set at Alnwick Castle. The Harry Potter movies had been filmed there, but the game of chess was priceless. It was the first and only time Bridget had defeated Rex.
“I’m still here, mum… just looking over the hall photos.”
“You can take them down if they’re too painful. No-one will think any less of you.”
“I don’t need to. I’m glad they’re there… far better memories than the past week. I can’t believe I did all that… I can’t believe I did this to us…”
“Don’t, Iris… you can’t… you can’t do that to yourself… and those of us left behind… you just can’t. If I thought about every decision I ever made and tied them to a single moment in time, it’d drive me mad!”
“You don’t know… you just don’t know…”
“And I don’t need to, Iris. We can deal with that later. You just need to start again. I know Rex well enough, he could forgive you anything… and Bridget… he loved her so…”
“He loved her more than me…”
“Don’t be bloody silly, Iris… you’re his wife!”
“Robert, is that you, Robert?”
“Yes, it’s Robert... on the other bloody extension!”
“You need to pull yourself together, girlie… there’s no time for this blubbering bullshit…”
“Enough, Robert… get off the line… I don’t know, sometimes… sometimes you just have to forgive yourself for the choices you make.”
“You needed someone after dad, mum… and I’ve always liked Robert, even if he is a bit old school… just like Rex I suppose.”
“Rex, old school? I don’t think so. He never failed to surprise me with his oddities… Rex and Bridget – two peas in a pod. You’ve got to re-connect, Iris… before this gets out of hand. I know you don’t like confrontation, but you’re all grown up now. It’s your responsibility to take control of these things now. I’m too old for it, Robert’s far too grumpy for it… and you’ll have to take care of us one day soon. We’re not getting any younger you know.”
“I know, mum… I just don’t feel that old.”
“And you think I do? None of us want to feel old; it just creeps up on us. I can’t remember half the things I used to.”
“Come on mum, it’s not that bad… you’re not that bad.”
“I am, dear… and it’ll only get worse. I was young enough when your dad died to take care of myself. It won’t be the same next time. I know it sounds harsh, but some things we just have to prepare ourselves for and then battle through.”
“And this is the first time I’ve ever had to, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Iris… you’ve been very lucky. Now you’ve just got to use all those good things, all those wonderful memories to your advantage. Rex designed the walls in that beautiful old house of yours to remind you of the good times, best you use that.”
Iris was constantly surprised by her mother. Yes, she was in her 70’s and yes, she had lost her husband young, but she had remained young and enthusiastic, despite everything. She was forever reading new books and learning and trying as many modern conveniences as she could afford. There was no time in her life for idleness and although she had never verbalized her ideas, Iris knew exactly what she was thinking. Everybody had their time regardless of how short it might appear. Those who remained were charged with the possession of their memory and the distribution of their will to live on.
There was one particular picture that caught Iris’ attention now… Bridget on Brighton Beach; one hand clinging onto a long stick of Brighton Rock, the other holding a pebble from the beach… the other kind of Brighton rock. The will of the southern English to create a beach resort where there was no sand, where only slippery ankle munching pebbles lay, astounded her. Bridget thought that they would be building sand castles that day; instead they spent the afternoon skimming rocks… all because someone had the bright idea of making a non-beach a beach. Iris had to believe. She had to have faith in their past and use it to rebuild their future, regardless of how painful it might be.
Iris was about to drift back to her telephone conversation when the house echoed with an unholy screech. It was so shrill it cut Iris to the core, sending shivery goose bumps down her shoulders to her fingertips. The scream echoed through the old house like a waking torment from the bowels of Dachau. Iris knew exactly where it had gestated and why. She dropped the receiver of the old Bakelite phone without thinking and ran up the hall. The phone hit the floor with a thud, but it didn’t shatter. Ingenuity and the softer Baltic pine floor boards saved it.
However, the gloss of the polished floor boards did not help Iris at this point. She slid along them precariously in her Ugg boots, desperate to reach the source of the accursed scream. She was already too late. That was why she blamed herself. She had been too distracted, too self-absorbed, and with a distinct lack of focus at home.
Iris crashed into the door at the far right hand end of the hall with a thud deserving of the Bakelite phone. The door repelled her. It was stuck fast, as it often was in summer, when the door jamb swelled. She had let it remain closed for far too long. Too afraid to face the horror within and now it was screeching out at her, desperate to make sense of the past week. Iris shook the door handle and flung her fist against the door. Another ungodly screech echoed through the house and Iris desisted. She sank down to her knees and began to sob…
“I’m sorry… I’m so sorry, my love… my little girl… I’m so sorry I started this. I never meant any of this to happen. I never meant to hurt you… I loved every moment… and… I can’t bear listening to you like this… your torment… you have to let it go… you have to pass on through… the pain, the anger… this will only make it worse…”
There was no answer from beyond the door, but thankfully the screeching had stopped. Iris felt less of a chill from beyond the door now. She wasn’t sure if that was due to her words or her exertion, but she was quite flushed and taking a deep breath she ventured on…
“Bridget… don’t cry my love… mummy’s here now… and always…”
Iris leant her back up against Bridget’s bedroom door. All was quiet inside, as it had been for the best part of a week. The silence should have soothed her, but instead, a week of guilt began to fester. The smiling faces of her family from around the world beamed down at her innocently from the encompassing lathe and plaster walls.
If only they knew.
Rex knew and she suspected that Bridget knew too. That was where the guilt really bit in. She could handle Rex. She always handled Rex with relative ease, as she had that night… one week ago…
Friday nights were always so mundane in the Hund household. Iris didn’t even cook. She had a stash of party pies, sausage rolls and spring rolls in the freezer. Rex usually sweated over his pizza masterpieces; real mozzarella, salami, olives, capsicum, mushrooms, spices and a home-made tomato-based sauce. He even tossed on an occasional egg, careful to split it so that it eked out over the entire pizza.
Meanwhile in the lounge room, the T.V. was usually tuned to Escape to the Country or the football, while in summer, they had a run of Friday night movies that even Bridget tuned in to. Rex had a great collection which he had enhanced recently with a new surround sound and Blu-ray system.
Rex always settled a bit during working weeks. The left-hand recliner was his usual home, with Bridget sprawled across the couch or curled up in the bean bag she would have loved to have had a puppy to share with. Rex had a collection of action films and epics, but the noir films with Bogey and Bacall really drew the crowd. Of course, as the walls of the house attested, while on holiday Rex was a different beast, full of adventures… castles, ancient kingdoms and crannochs. However, the holidays were becoming scarce as his corporate responsibilities became greater and the predilection Iris had for an advance career further stifled opportunities.
This particular Friday, Iris had coaxed Rex out into the corporate world. She didn’t have to go, the party was optional, but she was in need of something different. Rex bemoaned the loss of his movie and pizza night, but he was nothing if not dutiful.
“I know you don’t want to go, Rex, but my career is just as important as yours and this customer is more than important. This could set me up.”
“We’re already set up, Iris. How much more can we have before we don’t know what we own anymore?”
“I don’t want to be like your father, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“What, you don’t need to buy a factory in the suburbs just to store all your toys! Then what would you do with it all?”
“How ‘bout some more family holidays, some decent not-on-the-cheap ones as well? It’s been a while, you know!”
“Yeah, right… you know the more we work the less we do anything else!”
“That’s why we should be going out more… that’s why we should be going out tonight!”
“I know, Iris, I know.”
Rex shrugged his shoulders and bent over to lace up his shoes. Tonight was semi-dressy, just like every day at the office; everything but the tie and he detested wearing a tie as much as he hated tying one. He didn’t really begrudge Iris her night out; he just didn’t particularly like all the fuss.
Iris, on the other hand, was revelling in the preparation. She had dug out her best Parisian perfume. There wasn’t much left now, that’s how long it had been since Paris, but she was prepared to utilize what was left tonight. Iris even found time to add hair extensions and false eye-lashes. These combined with her newly done nails really made an impression and actually made Rex proud. Iris smiled to herself in the mirror as she applied the finishing touches to her face. She could see him watching her as he used to. It was such a shame that he didn’t watch her like this all the time.
Bridget burst in at this moment with her mobile and threw her arm around Iris. She quickly snapped a photo of the pair with her free hand. She’d already captured her dad and Iris knew that the photos would be up on Facebook within the hour; she just didn’t know how important they would eventually be.
The VW Golf that Iris drove annoyed Rex even further as he had to adjust the seat and the rearview mirrors. The couple was actually the same height, but Iris was slightly longer in the body and shorter in the legs. Iris always said she was taller because of the higher mirror position, but they all knew better… especially Bridget, who had painstakingly measured them both for a family tree project only a few months before.
Iris sat in the passenger seat looking lovelier than she had for some time. It was only then that Rex realised how big a deal tonight was. Iris had gone all out. She was obviously prepared to do anything to make an impression tonight. Rex jerked the car forward slightly. He rarely drove Iris’ car, yet he negotiated the tight rear access lane successfully. Bridget waved them both off from the back verandah as the roller door slowly slid shut. The rear access was a great security feature, especially when leaving a teenage daughter home alone.
Half an hour later Rex and Iris were pulling into a sweeping crushed-rock driveway in the leafy suburb of Glen Iris. This was the rental home of a potentially large overseas client that Iris desperately wanted to snare. Shipping was such a risky business with enormous rewards and to get a large company using your ports and containers would definitely be a coup.
The couple was greeted at the front door by an extremely formal looking Asian butler. Rex wasn’t game to pin an actual race on the man. He had never been particularly good at picking the difference in Asian faces; he required a name and this man wasn’t about to give up his… familiarity was not a part of his brief.
“Please to take off shoes and follow.”
They did as they were asked, finding a well organized array of wooden shoe racks for their discarded footwear. Rex expected Iris to moan about losing her delicately chosen shoes, but she had other things on her mind. There were a dozen other pairs of shoes already lined up and no spare places beyond theirs. Iris was doing a quick calculation as to what his meant so she knew what she might be up against and beyond this she quickly filed in behind the butler as he lead the way up a long formal central hallway, Rex bringing up the rear.
The scale of the house was surprising for despite its sweeping driveway its dimensions were well hidden behind a clump of massive elms. Its two storey’s were narrow at the front of the property yet spread out wide and deep to the rear of the property.
There was music, some kind of light jazz, perhaps Norah Jones, growing ever louder as they stepped along the hall. The many doors on either side were all open and all the adjoining rooms were lit in different colours. All but one was a lounge, reading or sitting room, yet despite all being lit they were all vacant. The final room, a kitchen, was a hub of activity. There must have been a dozen cooks and waitresses buzzing around a variety of differing dishes the likes of which Rex and Ivy had rarely seen in a dozen restaurants let alone a single kitchen. The delicate aromas that enveloped them and lingered about to the end of the hallway was mouth watering, yet all was forgotten as soon as they were ushered out to the back patio.
“Welcome to my humble rental Miss Iris of Austral Shipping. These are your rival bidders, so take care to what you say and to whom you say it. I will be watching you all most carefully.”
The charm and the confidence of the man before them belied his statue. He was barely 5 foot tall, perhaps 5’2” at a stretch. His shock of blue-black hair was short, but stood on end, giving him a few extra inches. His eyes were stereo-typically narrow whilst his smile over-compensated for them with a wide toothy grin that glinted gold in a number of places. Despite all of this, Rex’s eyes were drawn to the man’s dress. He was draped in what Rex suspected was a Kimono, open at the chest, and almost down to his naval. The sash that concealed his junk, as Bridget might tweet, was far too loosely tied for Rex’s liking. He had to admit, though, altogether it was a cool image… except for the feet. He had the half expected sandals, yet they were draped in knee-high white socks. Rex’s eyebrows shot up and the man before him laughed.
“The socks, ah ha… oh, but the socks… pure genius, no! Shame about the fungus under my toenails… don’t go near the hot tub… come, come… join us all.”
Rex wasn’t concerned about the socks, they were just odd, but he now eyed the hot tub that bubbled away in the distance with suspicion. He was actually more concerned that he was way over-dressed.
Iris quickly tugged him out into the rear garden as she had seen all this before. Most people who met Tommy Tanaka for the first time were similarly disarmed. The garden surrounds, complete with tennis courts, sauna block and spa, certainly confused the uninitiated’s senses, as did the Japanese lantern-lit marquee and the enormous spread below. This was certainly not like any business do Rex had ever been to before.
Tanaka introduced Rex and Iris around the marquee. The other guests were all similarly dressed, so they no longer felt out of place. Only Tanaka and his wife stood out in dress sense. His wife Mie was introduced last. She held court at the heart of the marquee, yet she spoke little. She gave a nod and a bow to each guest as Tanaka brought them inside. She was mere window dressing on what appeared to be a precisely staged event.
“So, this is a shoot out…”
“It’s OK, Rex… this is a game and everyone here wants to win. Everyone… especially Mr. Tanaka. I need to keep close to him, do you mind? Can you survive on your own for the evening? Come on, I know you; I know you can talk to anybody about anything if you’re in the mood.”
“Sure, Iris… you’re right, as usual. I’ll make my way around alright. You do what you have to do to get the deal. I’ll keep myself busy. If nothing else, there’s plenty of food to keep me occupied.”
Iris kissed Rex lightly on the cheek. She rubbed off the excess lipstick with her thumb and caught Tanaka watching her over Rex’s shoulder. She smiled and with a cautious wave, slipped away from Rex without another word.
Rex mixed dutifully with the partners of the other guests while sampling the many and varied dishes that streamed out of the kitchen. Alcohol flowed freely, as did the fake laughter; its decibels slowly increasing as the level of sincerity faded. Rex soon realised that there seemed to be no particular order to the evening’s proceedings. The company was as fluid as the condiments, yet Rex found himself wandering a little aimlessly within an hour. He found little solace in the partners of the invited, which was slightly unusual for Rex, who could blend in with most situations. There was just something slightly unusual about the entire evening, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
Drifting away from the marquee in the rear garden, Rex began to explore. It wasn’t often that one got the chance to take in a classic old mansion in Melbourne’s inner eastern suburbs. Elite properties were well out of the reach of Rex and Iris’ affordability, so much so that they didn’t even dare visit an open house when one was up for auction. It just didn’t seem worthwhile. What they didn’t know about this part of Melbourne was better left unknown. Of course, had this been an ancient English manor house they’d have been buying souvenirs.
Décor wise, Tanaka’s rental was modern. There were sleek lines and matching furniture, an abundance of down lights as opposed to chandeliers, and everything in general, from hot tub to LCD TV screens in most rooms, seemed to belie the external age Rex would have placed on the house. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it left little for investigation and he soon lost interest in the architecture and the décor.
Rex found himself back on the fringes of the rear garden within the half hour, but the scene there had changed dramatically. Many of the guests had disappeared, as had the tables and the chairs that once stood beneath the marquee. These had been replaced by mountains of cushions and that was where the remainder of the guests were lying about.
Tanaka seemed to be the centre of this lounge-fest. He was still dressed as casually as he had been and flanked by Iris and another woman, whom Rex had yet to meet. Tanaka, ever the host, spotted Rex immediately and along with his trademark smile gave a slight wave of his hand. His wife Mie, who was standing motionless behind him, responded automatically. She left her post, as Tanaka whispered some instructions to her. He then drifted back to his immediate guests.
Mie bent low at the knees and picked up a tray of small shot glasses. The motion was effortless and Rex barely noticed a ripple on the surface of any, which were all quite full. Mie wove her way towards Rex, between the cushions and guests, without wavering or taking note of their positions. This was no mean feat considering her traditional Japanese dress-code; sandals below a tightly fitting kimono that hugged her slender figure like a second skin. Despite her dress, she was more western above the kimono, with only a subtle dash of makeup, highlighting her deep almond eyes. Her hair was long, to her shoulders and a little beyond, yet straight, with no decoration whatsoever. It shone almost blue in its blackness… it didn’t need any decoration and neither did her lips, which were pursed and almost slightly unsure as she paused a few feet away from Rex. She made a slight turn towards Tanaka who waved her on dismissively. She must have caught this from the corner of her eye, or sensed the motion, as she quickly continued on towards Rex with her tray in hand. Mie paused before him and her lips parted to a brilliant smile…
“Would you like some LSDS, Rexie San?”
Rex studied the tray before him, but he could only think of one response, 98.4º Fahrenheit… the perfect temperature in which to serve saké… according to James Bond as portrayed by the one and only Sir Sean.
“Don’t you mean LSD, or is LSDs a Japanese-English thing… Japlish?”
“I prefer to call it Englanese, it rhymes with please as does LSDS… I should know, Rexie San, I have excellent English… only this not English, this drink is Japanese. Lysergic acid diethylamide saké… you try.”
“I already try, Tanaka insists.”
Rex had no doubt that this was true. The eyes of the young Japanese woman before him were quite intent on his decision, yet they were also quite glassy; deep pools of fascination. Mie’s eyes drew him in and he felt his hand reach out for the tray before him without his brain asking it to.
Mie blinked, which caused Rex to pause.
She leant in towards him, indiscernibly bending at the waist, and with a wink she whispered…
“You try, Rexie San, and then Mie…”
The hand that had paused so responsibly honoured the challenge and chose a glass. Rex didn’t look, he was still lost somewhere deep in those almond pools. He didn’t even watch the glass onto his bottom lip; he just threw it back and swallowed in a single gulp. 98.4º… perfect. Rex had sampled saké before, and while never quite like this, the taste was no different.
“You serve Mie now.”
Rex got the joke this time, he caught onto the Englanese wordplay and with a grin, he chose another shot. He was still quite lost in those eyes and he could have sworn they swirled a little as he reached out across the ornamental silver tray. Rex lifted up the glass, raised it to Mie’s lips, and tipped the contents into her willing mouth. Mie allowed it to be filled and she swallowed the LSDS in a single gulp, before licking her lips with a sensuousness that seemed quite inappropriate. She did not take her eyes off Rex, even as he used his thumb to wipe away the last drop that dribbled from the corner of her mouth.
“You like, Rexie San?”
“It tastes the same.”
“Good saké at correct temperature always tastes the same.”
“But I thought…”
“Lysergic acid diethylamide has no taste, only sensation… another?”
“You only live twice!”
“I think you should put that tray down now.”
“I think so too. I serve everybody now.”
Mie dropped the tray at their feet and took Rex by the hand. The glasses seemed to fall to the ground as one with the tinkle of a wind chime; the tray vibrating with the wobble of Rolf Harris’ Stairway To Heaven. No one seemed to notice.
Rex was led back into the house, behind Mie’s short swivel steps, which seemed surprisingly efficient despite her restrictive footwear. The kitchen was dark now. There was no sign of the dozen or so chefs and waitresses, yet the flavours still floated with temptation from within. Rex tilted his head back slightly to accommodate the smells. Mie giggled and did likewise. The aromas had colour now.
The rooms beyond the kitchen swung rhythmically, with a variety of beats and various combinations of lights. Each room also danced with the images from the large plasma screens that hung from their walls. Unlike earlier, each room was now occupied by at least one couple.